Published: July 25, 2007
SANTA COMBA DÃO, Portugal — When Portuguese television viewers recently voted the former dictator António de Oliveira Salazar "the greatest Portuguese who ever lived" — passing over the most celebrated kings, poets and explorers in the nation's thousand-year history — the broadcaster RTP braced itself for a strong reaction. But what ensued resembled a national identity crisis.
First the left howled in protest, demanding to know how a man who had sent his enemies to concentration camps in Africa could be revered by a modern European nation. Then the Socialist government spun into denial, saying the vote was unrepresentative because viewers could vote multiple times from different phone lines — as many did.
One irate viewer wrote to the channel's Web site, saying, "Only masochists, imbeciles or the insane could have voted for this executioner." Others said the tally was a fitting rebuke from a country lagging behind the rest of the continent.
The show "Great Portuguese," in which Salazar received 41 percent of the 159,245 votes cast, was based on the BBC show "Great Britons," which has spawned imitators around the world. Churchill won on the British version of the show, while in the United States, Reagan edged out Lincoln.
But no country experienced the frenzy of recrimination that engulfed Portugal, where Salazar beat nine finalists, including the explorer Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route to India, and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II.
Salazar's prospects may have been helped by RTP's initially having omitted his name from the contest, a move that provoked a massive pro-Salazar campaign in the blogosphere.
Whatever the intrigue behind the voting, Fernando Dacosta, a biographer of Salazar, calls his victory the "Portuguese revenge" for disillusionment with the revolution of April 25, 1974, which overthrew the dictatorship but failed to deliver on its own promises. Today, Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe, and its recent history is marred by corruption scandals.
"The Portuguese don't want to have Salazar back from the dead," said Mr. Dacosta, who was jailed several times as a student during the Salazar dictatorship. "But they miss the dream they had in the past about a future that never came."
He said nostalgia for Salazar also reflected the "saudade," or longing, of the Portuguese soul, a melancholy, he noted, that is present in most things Portuguese like the existential angst of fado music.
Salazar's ghost is everywhere here in the dictator's birthplace, a dusty agricultural town about 125 miles north of Lisbon, though there are few visible signs of the town's most famous son.
The modest house where he lived sits crumbling and empty, with a tiny plaque on the facade saying, "A gentle man who governed and never robbed."
"It is shame that such a great man is treated like this," Idalina Da Conceicão, 75, shouted down from her window next to Salazar's home. "If Salazar was bad, the people who run the country today are even worse."
Miguel Arriaga, 17, an engineering student, said he voted twice for Salazar because today's Portugal was "godless" and bereft of values and purpose.
The television contest may help Salazar's birthplace to resurrect him from the shadows of history, in addition to providing a commercial opportunity.
For 30 years, a bust of Salazar has been hidden away in the city hall's attic after the rest of the statue was blown up during the revolution. Now the mayor wants to resurrect the statue, next to a planned Salazar museum. Plans also are in the works for a gift shop, T-shirts and commemorative figurines.
"Whatever you think of Salazar, he ran the country for nearly 40 years, during which we were treated like children," said the mayor, João Lourenço, a conservative. "Now, we Portuguese have finally grown up and we need to confront our past."
In a potent sign that a historical reckoning is finally taking place, a new satirical play — "Salazar, the Musical" — is drawing large crowds on a Lisbon stage.
On a recent night, the audience howled with laughter as the pious Salazar, who never married and was staunchly Catholic, was depicted as an ineffectual and lecherous womanizer who kills his mother, gropes dancing nuns and leaves the running of the country to his famously powerful secretary and housekeeper, Doña María.
José Pedro Vasconcelos, 29, and Miguel Melo, 40, the two actors who play Salazar and who co-wrote the play, say they felt compelled to stage the musical because Salazar was the last sacred cow in Portugal. He added: " Abortion is no longer a taboo. Homosexuality is no longer a taboo. Dope is not a taboo. Yet Salazar still gives us goose bumps."
Some say the vote for Salazar was a backlash against the government of Prime Minister José Sócrates, 52, a Socialist, who has recently pushed through painful economic reforms. But in an interview, Mr. Sócrates blamed the vote on the mobilization of a small fringe group of rightists.
"We are a modern European country," he said. "We voted 59 percent in favor of liberalizing abortion."
Salazar came to power in a coup that overthrew an elected government in 1926. His New State initially brought economic stability and social order to Portugal. Many Portuguese still revere him for keeping the country out of World War II.
But his dark record includes the creation of a secret police force that tortured opponents, and widespread censorship that stifled cultural expression. He is also criticized for clinging to a crumbling empire.
Sociologists here say Salazar's popularity may also be part of a global trend in which economic insecurity and fears of international terrorism have created nostalgia for the authoritarianism of the past.
Adriano Moreira, 86, a minister for overseas affairs under Salazar, argues that if today's Portuguese idealize Salazar, it is because he was not a fascist dictator, but rather a "soft authoritarian" and father figure who gave the country a strong sense of national identity. Independent historians say only 60 people died in jails for political reasons during Salazar's nearly 40-year rule.
Whatever the explanations for the late dictator's grip on the Portuguese psyche, Mr. Dacosta, his biographer, argues that both the young and older generations need to confront his ghost.
"Salazar is not an extraterrestrial who just landed here," he said. "He is part of the Portuguese soul. Until we come to terms with Salazar, we Portuguese will never be who we really are."